We don’t have many opportunities to tell our readers positive stories, so we are grateful for a recent article in The Economist magazine about deforestation. (1) In many places around the world the rate of deforestation has slowed and some places are being reforested. Greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation were contributing 25% of all emissions just 15 years ago. Now deforestation accounts for only 12% of total emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which represents international scientific consensus said in its most recent report, “deforestation has slowed over the last decade.”
The reasons for this improvement are important because they give us clues about how we can make further progress. The Economist sees a pattern in the success stories: “Typically, countries start in poverty with their land covered in trees. As they clear it for farms or fuel, they get richer—until alarm bells ring and they attempt to recover their losses. This happens at different stages in different places, but the trajectory is similar in most: a reverse J. steeply down, then bottoming out, then up—but only part of the way.” Here are a few examples that illustrate this principle:
- Fifteen years ago, Brazil was losing 20,000 sq kilometers (7,700 sq miles) of forest per year. Since then a national policy has created national parks and protected patches of forest which has reduced deforestation to a rate of less than 6,000 sq kilometers per year.*
- Mexico has cut its deforestation rate even more than Brazil.
- India and Costa Rica are replanting their forests. India had 640,000 sq km of forest left in 1980. It now has 680,000 sq km of forest. Only 20% of Costa Rica was forested in the 1980s. Now 50% of Costa Rica is forested.
These countries have in common some of the factors that predict success in reducing deforestation. They are all more prosperous than they were in the past. Their fertility rates are declining. They are all democracies, in which public policy is largely a reflection of what the voters demand of their elected officials. These are also countries in which the government is sufficiently functional to enforce their forest policies. Developments in satellite imagery have helped these governments to monitor and enforce their policies.
(*Since this report was published by The Economist, the Yale Environmental Review 360e has published data on deforestation in Brazil for 2013. After reducing the rate of deforestation since 2004, the rate of deforestation increased from 2012 to 2013 due to new roads and dams, and illegal logging.)
None of these factors would predict the relatively low deforestation rate in the Congo because its population is growing rapidly, it is still very poor, and its government is dysfunctional. The Economist attributes the relatively low deforestation rate of the Congo to the movement of its rural population to distant urban areas. The distance of forests in the east of the country from the cities in the west makes them less vulnerable to deforestation.
Deforestation continues to be a serious problem in Indonesia, despite the fact that the fertility rate has declined and farm output increased. The rate of deforestation in Indonesia has exceeded that of Brazil since 2011. The government of Indonesia is hostile to anti-deforestation policy, seeing it as foreign intervention. Indonesia has only recently achieved democratic elections, which may enable reconsideration of forest policies.
China is also an interesting case because it has invested huge effort in reforestation without making any perceptible progress toward democratization. However, the population is stable and increasingly urbanized and the country is significantly more prosperous than it was in the 1980s. The effects of China’s deforestation were so dire as to motivate its autocratic rulers to take immediate action. (2)
Only 2% of China’s original forest is still intact, according to Greenpeace. Rampant logging and overgrazing have degraded its soil to the point that 25% of its territory is now covered in sand. The desert is so close to Beijing that its roads are often clogged with sand, its railways inundated, and its pastures desiccated.
In 1978, China began one of the biggest reforestation projects in the world. Since then 66 billion trees have been planted to create a shelterbelt along the edges of its northern desert that is projected to be 2,800 miles long by 2050. Unfortunately, the Chinese selected few species of trees, which would grow quickly. Some species were short-lived and some weren’t suited to soil conditions, so only 15% of trees planted since 1949 are still alive. This is probably another example of a country that could make greater progress against deforestation with a more open democracy, which improves decision-making.
Deforestation in the United States
Deforestation in the United States is largely a thing of the past. About half of the United States was forested in 1600 compared to about one-third today. Most of this deforestation occurred by 1910, when demand for lumber decreased significantly due to changes in building materials. In the northeast of the country, much of the land has been naturally reforested as land that had been cleared for agriculture was abandoned. It was always marginal land for agriculture, so as the population became more mobile, it moved west to find better land for farming. This graph reflects these changes in land use and informs us that the south and the west are still supplying lumber for the world. The US is supplying about one-fourth of the world’s timber. Wildfires and insect infestations caused by climate change are also factors in declining forest cover in the west (although probably not reflected in this graph which ends in 1997). (3)
Meanwhile, our local experience with deforestation is an outlier in these national trends. Much of California was naturally treeless grassland and chaparral and it is being returned to that landscape by the native plant movement. Most of our urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area is not native to California. It is being destroyed by most managers of public land because it is not native. The public often objects to these destructive projects, but we are being ignored.
As we have seen in the examples above, deforestation and reforestation are largely political decisions. American democracy is increasingly more responsive to economic interests than to the public. Declining voter participation rates are undoubtedly a factor in this disturbing trend. If you are not registered to vote, please give some thought to how our democracy has been damaged by lack of participation. Midterm elections will take place this November. Much is at stake.
(1) “A clearing in the trees,” The Economist, August 23-29, 2014
(2) “Great Green Wall,” The Economist, August 23-29, 2014